Timo Tolkki’s Avalon – Frame of HeartTuesday, 6th July 2021
Best known for his decades of work in Stratovarius, Timo Tolkki has been writing and recording a series of albums under the Avalon umbrella since 2013. Originally developing as a trilogy, Frontiers Music agreed to a fourth record that we have now with The Enigma Birth. Featuring a slew of incredible singers (James LaBrie, Fabio Lione, Brittney Slayes, Jake E, Caterina Nix among them) – it’s another tour de force for those who are into symphonic, melodic power metal. We reached out to Timo to catch up with the latest record, also delving into everything from guitar talk, mental/physical health, favorite memories, and a bit of Stratovarius thoughts in the mix.
Dead Rhetoric: The Enigma Birth is the fourth album under the Timo Tolkki’s Avalon umbrella – and the second work that you’ve developed with Aldo Lonobile in terms of songwriting and production. How did you see this material develop in comparison to your previous work? Do you feel more comfortable with Aldo and the entire process from initial idea development to completion?
Timo Tolkki: I think this one is pretty identical to Return to Eden as far as the process. I wrote half the songs. Originally I wrote ten songs, but it always comes down to quality control. The idea is based on Serafino, the owner of Frontiers Music. He called me a few years ago and asked if I wanted to do three Avalon albums – and now it’s turned into four. In a way, this is making me a little bit uncomfortable because I don’t have that much control with this. I don’t produce it, I write half the songs, it’s been done the way I don’t like because everything is isolated. Everybody just sends in their files, and that really isn’t the way I want to do music.
At the end of the day what really matters is if the record is good. And I think that it is.
Dead Rhetoric: Was some of this songwriting supposed to be for the Infinite Visions project you were working on?
Tolkki: No, this is all new stuff. There is nothing on here for that.
Dead Rhetoric: Which singers do you believe surprised you the most this time around in terms of their work and specific songs? Do you enjoy the challenge of keeping listener interest on high with all these different voices track to track?
Tolkki: (James) LaBrie surprised me, but in a negative way when I heard it. I think his voice is stale and a little weak. He is singing too low, as a producer I would have had him singer higher as he has a fantastic higher range. On the other hand, I love what Caterina, Brittney, and Raphael did on their songs. At the same time, I don’t have any control in choosing the singers either. I write the songs, make the demos, send them to Frontiers and they choose the vocalists. With Aldo, everything is cool – I may sometimes disagree with little things about the sound. The snare sound I don’t like, I would put things in a different way. I have been a producer for over twenty years, so I am very aware of things.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to your specific lead parts, what method seems to work best to achieve the ideal results? Are you the type of person to come up with things on the spot or do you plan out what you want to do?
Tolkki: I don’t really plan things, I let it happen. Nothing is conscious for me when it comes to music. I don’t use my brain at all, I’m a feeling kind of guy. The way I write songs is very fast. Some songs I write in ten to twenty minutes. There is no formula, there is no method, actually. The method is no method. I really don’t know how it happens, I just know it’s easy for me to do.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to your guitar breaks, do you have any favorites through the years?
Tolkki: Yeah I think, there again 95% of my solos are improvised. The problem may arise when it comes to make a tour, how the hell did I do that? I end up having to rehearse some of those solos. I like “Stratosphere”, an instrumental, I do like the Elements records, there are some really cool solos on there. “I Walk to My Own Song”, that’s a really cool one there. I tend to like melodic stuff. I can play very fast, but in the end it doesn’t mean as much to me. Anybody can do this. How can you make certain notes in a wide array mean something? That’s what is important to me.
For ten years from age sixteen to twenty-six I played eight hours a day. For that I improved my technique, but to bring things to another level I would need another ten years, to be somebody like Steve Vai. I am much more interested in creating some cool songs and production. I’m a songwriter and I love to play guitar, especially live. I’m not that amazing today, but I know what I am doing. I never overplay.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel about the outlook and philosophy of your record label Frontiers Music these days? It seems like the focus has been as much on putting together projects of specific musicians which is what takes place on your records…
Tolkki: Yeah. They have always been this way. It’s their business model. It’s fine with me, if they enjoy that. I do this Avalon stuff, but I have other things that I also want to do and have more control. Frontiers, they keep putting out really high quality records, and have high quality control. I am a part of that, and I have to sell myself to them first. They control a lot of things, that’s just the way it is, you have to accept this.
Dead Rhetoric: Has the art of songwriting and playing changed for you now in your mid-fifties compared to your outlook say twenty or thirty years ago? And do you need to be in a specific frame of mind to develop your best material, or do you find that creativity flows at different times and in different situations?
Tolkki: I would say I have to be in a specific frame of heart, not mind. I don’t use the mind for just anything. I am aware of music theory, but I don’t think about that when I write songs. I really dive into the feeling and I try to express myself. I try to make this feeling to resonate and vibrate with people in a higher level. I’ve been successful in that I guess because some people have come up to me and said that my songs have saved their lives. That’s cool to hear. If you listen to my music it’s quite simple, actually. The melodies are very simple, the production is extremely good. I like to simplify things. I don’t like to complicate things.
Dead Rhetoric: What would you say are some of your proudest moments in your career as a musician – specific albums, bands, projects, tours, or festival appearances when you knew you were making an impact with your art, craft, and abilities?
Tolkki: I have played 3,500 shows in 55 countries in my career, so I’ve been around. The best time for me were the Elements records in Stratovarius. I had this idea to really make something different in the power metal style. We hired a real symphonic choir on these records. The subsequent tour – with everything from the Episode album forward things were getting bigger and bigger. All the tours were better, the records were selling more and more, like a roller coaster ride it went really fast. But the Elements tour, we were playing headlining shows to over 7,000 people in Brazil, there are many things.
Dead Rhetoric: How was it to revisit that material a couple of years back on the South American tour?
Tolkki: That was one and a half years ago. It was a three-week tour. It was cool that the people were still there. And we also did some gigs in Mexico. I was the only one in the world doing gigs at that time during the pandemic down there. And now they will book a full Latin American tour for me, and a couple of shows in the states as well. Twenty-one shows are booked now, that’s really cool.
Dead Rhetoric: I remember last year you got the chance to meet up again with your old bandmates in Stratovarius. How was this experience for you?
Tolkki: That was really emotional. I hadn’t seen them for over ten years. I see the show, I’m in the audience listening to my songs. “4000 Rainy Nights”, all these songs. I almost cried, really good vibes. Nothing bad happened. There was this Instagram photo with over one million likes. I think people still want to hear me with the band. I don’t know what is going to happen. I have talked to Jens, I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. We will have to see if we can get something together in some form.
I play with these local musicians, but I really want to play “Black Diamond”, I hear Kotipelto’s voice there. What that would be like, the combination of the old and the current lineups, that would be cool. If we find a way that everybody’s happy, creative, and can be cool I think we should do it.
Dead Rhetoric: How would you say your mental and physical health are holding up these days? Are there specific tools you put into practice to keep yourself sharp and sane as a musician for your total well-being?
Tolkki: I think because they diagnosed me as bi-polar in 2004 and I have been going to therapy for seven years. I have read a lot of books, meditating, keeping myself fit. I don’t drink too much. The rock and roll life is bi-polar anyways. You play to these 7,000 people with a two-hour concert, this energy you really feel it, a physical thing. And then you go to a hotel, and you have nothing. It’s really a plus and minus. Every day is like this. That’s bi-polar. That’s why I choose this music.
I’ve been feeling good for the past two or three years. I don’t take any medicine, and I feel fine.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the differences when it comes to recording versus live shows? Do you have a preference from one over the other, or are both equally satisfying for their own unique reasons?
Tolkki: I like playing live more. Studio work seems to be like hard work for me. You have to take care of every detail, the performance has to be perfect. It takes a lot of time. Most of the records, we need one to two months. Live playing is very different. It’s totally spontaneous, you see the fans face to face. When I write music, I never write it at first for my fans. I write it for myself, I have to like it. In a live situation I’m very aware of what people want to hear. That’s when I observe the crowd. If I had to have a preference, I would choose the live performance.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the ever-changing, evolving landscape of the music industry? Are there aspects that you enjoy better than others, or do you miss the older models where physical sales mattered most?
Tolkki: I definitely see the decline in the industry. Spotify, Apple, they really don’t pay to the artists. There is a new generation of listeners who think it’s their right not to pay for the music, they think it is for free. Music is a job as well. It’s supposed to be like a higher form of thing, you have to pay the rent. I’m planning for my fourth solo record to be released in November, and I will bypass all these avenues. I’m going to finance it myself, and it will sound good. There will be a website where you can download maybe one or two songs, listen to one minute of each song. But pay ten dollars to get the whole thing. And if people don’t do this, then I’m just not going to sit around on this Titanic and watch it sink. Why would I spend $20,000 for my record, and then nobody wants to buy it? I’m not going to complain, but I will do something else. I will always do music anyway, it doesn’t matter in what form. This is a test though.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s left on the bucket list for Timo Tolkki to accomplish in your career? Any specific projects, musicians, or work that you want to accomplish – or maybe places to visit on tour?
Tolkki: Yes. I would really love to write a musical. I will do this. Other than that, I just will have to see what will happen. Touring, I am 55, I have to find ways to move forward. I don’t think I will be on the stage when I am 70, that’s for sure. And I love pop music, there is a career there if I want to go there. As far as metal goes, it’s reaching the end for me. Maybe two to five years from now.
Dead Rhetoric: You are fluent in multiple languages: Finnish, English, Swedish, German, and a little bit of Spanish as well. How important has this been in terms of your touring, traveling, and business/music dealings?
Tolkki: I think maybe in terms of speaking things with language that you are not supposed to know or say (laughs). As a communicative tool, I use language for that – but as you know with any language, only 25 % of it is verbal. There are a lot of other things relating to body language and how you feel. There is a lot of energy there. You want to talk to people and you want to understand them, speaking their language is also a good thing.
Dead Rhetoric: When younger musicians seek you out for advice, what types of wisdom or information do you try to impress upon them to think about, process, and maybe avoid certain situations so they can better themselves down the line?
Tolkki: If they ask how to make it, there is no how. I never thought about it myself, I just wanted to compose songs that I like, put them out and tour. If there is some advice, it’s being honest and try to develop that. Really just try to make something original. Everybody copies (others) at some point – myself too. But then you have to develop something and put your soul and heart into it. I see a lot of mechanical musicians without any feeling. And that is something that is hard to make different, because that is a character issue. I really like musicians who are alive, in many, many ways.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next twelve to eighteen months shaping up for activities with Timo Tolkki? Are you working on more songs, projects, producing/mixing, and will there be any tour plans for the world to expect?
Tolkki: Yes, there is a fourth solo album that will be coming out on the 3rd of November. And they have booked me a Latin American tour in September/October of this year, twenty-one gigs. Miami, Los Angeles, and New York as well. Next year there will be festival gigs. That’s my life, I’m a musician.